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Helpful Bacteria to the Rescue
Keeping NASA's astronauts healthy on Earth is important, but maintaining their health in space is vital.

Bill McLamb works with the Bioluminescent Bioreporter Integrated Circuit Test Apparatus Space travelers sometimes spend months in the same quarters, breathing recycled air and drinking recycled water that makes the International Space Station and space vehicles a potential breeding ground for bacteria and gasses that build up over time.

Image left: Bill McLamb works with the Bioluminescent Bioreporter Integrated Circuit Test Apparatus. This testing facility uses microchip technology to generate a luminescent (glowing) signal when exposed to specific contaminants. Image credit NASA/KSC

But scientists at the Space Life Sciences Lab at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida are developing ways in which "good" bacteria can be used to help keep astronauts healthier and safer in space.

According to Dr. Jay Garland, project leader for Dynamac Corporation, the goal is to be able to indicate to astronauts that they have been exposed to a contaminant within minutes, instead of the current system that can take months.

"They can monitor and detect it quickly and do whatever they need to do so remedial action can be taken immediately," Garland said.

Diagram of the Bioluminescent Bioreporter Integrated Circuit Test Apparatus Volatile organic compound contaminants can get into a spacecraft or the space station from a variety of sources, such as Freon from refrigerant systems. In our homes, these gasses are quickly dissipated through air-conditioning systems or open windows. But in an enclosed environment in space, they present a health hazard to the crew.

Image right: Diagram of the Bioluminescent Bioreporter Integrated Circuit Test Apparatus. Image credit: Univ. of Tennessee.

Collaborating with the University of Tennessee, Garland and research scientists Bill McLamb and Michele Birmele are working on two projects using engineered bacteria to produce light, or luminescence, when exposed to toxic chemicals and harmful bacteria.

"Genetically engineered bacterial strains can glow like a firefly. They're based on the same kind of reaction, but from a different gene," said McLamb. These special bacteria are then mated to a microchip which will transmit a signal about exposure to a contaminant.

NASA has designated several high-priority chemicals that would present the highest concern if astronauts were exposed to them in the cabin. These include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, dichloromethane and formaldehyde.

McLamb is working to characterize the performance of these genetically engineered biosensors that will detect these invisible gases.

Michele Birmele in the biolab at Kennedy's SLS Lab Birmele is handling the viral detection portion of the project. She recites an instance when one of the Apollo 13 astronauts developed a bladder infection as a result of harmful bacteria that was carried onboard.

Image left: Michele Birmele conducts bacterial phage research in the biolab. Image credit: NASA/KSC

Bacteria and viruses have been found to grow better in space. Astronauts could be exposed daily to illness, so the team's research is crucial to keeping the crew "in the know" about their surroundings.

Birmele is testing how the good bacteria will work in a space environment to detect bad bacteria. Her enthusiasm for her work is evident as she eagerly explains how the different bacterial strains of glowing bacteria or light-producing genes detect other organisms. Currently she's working with a virus that will attach itself to bad bacteria, such as E. coli.

Once Birmele's research is complete, the virus and good bacteria portion will be incorporated onto a microchip and become part of the Bioluminescent Bioreporter Integrated Circuit apparatus, which will detect bad bacteria.

A microchip seated on a penny Image right: Comparison of the size of the microchip with a penny. Image credit: Univ. of Tennessee

Although research and testing will continue for several years, bioluminescent biochip technology will ultimately give our future space travelers a healthier environment using "friendly bacteria," providing almost immediate alerts to contamination in enough time to make a difference during their exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond.

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Elaine M. Marconi
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center